Apple has some 50,000 workers around the world, but few of them would argue that it’s a guy currently on sick leave who has done more than anyone to turn the Silicon Valley institution into the most valuable company in the world.
The California-based consumer electronics company achieved that lofty status on Tuesday when its unstoppable run helped it briefly blast past Exxon Mobil in market capitalization.
Though volatile trading quickly overturned the coup, the company’s long-term trajectories signal that it is only a matter of time before Apple takes the top spot for good.
That will be a remarkable vindication for Steve Jobs, 55, the college dropout turned technology visionary who did as much as anyone to instigate the PC revolution after launching Apple in 1976.
Now he has done more than anyone to usher in the post PC-world, where the data and content that matter most to people and companies is available at every moment on myriad devices.
The basic outline of his rise, fall and triumphant resurrection bears the hallmark of a morality tale of the digital age. He saw the future of computing when he founded Apple together with Steve Wozniak, and pioneered the use of a mouse and a point-and-click command process after seeing the concept at a Xerox research lab.
His idea was promptly copied by Microsoft, which made its Windows software available to anyone and quickly captured a dominant market share in the rapidly growing market.
Mr. Jobs’ insistence that Apple software run only on Apple machines was a large part of the reason he lost a boardroom power struggle in 1985, prompting him to leave the company.
While Apple’s fortunes dwindled to the status of a struggling niche player flirting with bankruptcy, Jobs developed Pixar Animation, which would become one of the most successful film studios, and a new computer company called Next.
He was called back to Apple’s helm in 1997 and promptly set about transforming Apple from a puny weakling reliant on the life support of Microsoft to the world’s most valuable company.
Mr. Jobs’ driving idea was that the sci-fiction vision of a digital future -- where we would video-conference with wristwatch devices and download movies and music over invisible networks -- was just around the corner.
As other companies remained trapped in gradual refinements of existing technologies, Apple would make this future happen.
The first step in the grand strategy was the iPod, launched almost a decade ago. In the whiz-bang age of the iPhone and Android, it this device seems awfully humble, but 10 years ago it revolutionized the way people listened to music, combining software and hardware in a beautiful package that for the first time made it easy and intuitive to make huge music collections portable.
He revitalized Apple’s computers with the iMac and established iTunes as the unrivalled online store for the purchase of music and video. Within six years, Apple sold more than 100 million iPods, while five years after the 2003 launch of iTunes it had sold more than 5 billion downloads.
Apple completed its rout with the 2007 launch of the iPhone.
Just four years ago the idea that hundreds of millions of people would routinely use the internet over their mobile phones seemed hallucinatory, given the clunkiness of existing smartphones and their software. But Jobs knew better.
In one fell swoop, Apple came from nowhere to dominate what quickly became the biggest consumer electronics market in history and overtake such market leaders as Nokia, Motorola and Microsoft.
Even that did not satisfy Jobs’ ambitions for Apple. Last year’s launch of the iPad swept aside decades of tablet computer failures to create yet another new market for Apple to dominate while bringing down the curtain on traditional PCs.
Apple is far from done.
The big question is whether Jobs will be around to lead the next phase, as questions about his health remain unanswered, says tech blogger Jesus Diaz of the gadget site Gizmodo.
“It was Steve Jobs’ unique vision and his strict command of a brilliant troop of engineers that made -- and still makes -- it all possible. Together, they created the future,” Diaz said.
“If Jobs goes, Apple could face the same long decline as Microsoft and Sony. I’m convinced that Apple can’t be Apple without Steve.”